Don’t be skeptical of skeptics
I’ve been off-line for a couple of weeks so this is a very belated response to Frank Swain’s gig at Westminster Skeptics at the beginning of August.
Frank Swain, aka SciencePunk, no longer calls himself a skeptic. This isn’t because he’s become less of one. On the contrary, he described himself as being “born of the skeptic movement” and “hugely enamoured” with it. But he has, in recent years, distanced himself from the “skeptic community” because he doesn’t want to be associated with its attitudes and behaviour.
It seemed a little odd when, towards the end of his talk, he introduced what he described as the most important part of it with the revelation that as a “white, middle-class, college-educated, science-background man”, he wasn’t qualified to talk about it. As it turned out, that was one of the few things Frank said that I agreed with. The topic at this stage was “who we invite and make space for in our community”, the community in question being the people who write or talk or campaign in any way on the kind of issues that skeptics are concerned about; the one Frank is hugely enamoured with but doesn’t want to be associated with.
Before he said that, we’d heard much about how macho, aggressive, arrogant, intolerant and hostile skeptics are and we were treated to a list of quotes of the “quacks are stupid” variety that he’d lifted from various skeptic blogs. We also heard how we were doing things wrong, from what he described as our “evidence or fuck off” approach to debate to our refusal to engage with people’s “scary” emotions. Even the format for skeptics meetings in pubs was “intimidating”. He didn’t pull his punches — here’s a typical quote:
…I don’t want to shoot my load too soon but there is something very important I want to say, which is that arguing from the basis of facts is ineffective and cowardly…
It was obvious that, however enamoured Frank might once have been, he doesn’t love us anymore. Now, in the “most important part” of his talk, he told us of lots of other people don’t love us either. People like women, mothers, humanities graduates and members of the Green party. As for ethnic minorities, “We do fail to take an interest in them, don’t we?” he said mysteriously, before moving swiftly on.
On women he was more forthcoming: women aren’t comfortable coming into “this very aggressive environment”, he claimed. He’d even had emails from women telling him as much.
I wish to goodness those women would email me so I could tell them to get a fucking grip!
As many readers of this blog know, I was not born of the skeptic movement myself. Rather, I am a born-again skeptic, having previously spent many years as a female humanities graduate and occasional user of altmeds, which never failed to disappoint me. I owe a debt of gratitude to the many skeptics who helped me on my path to enlightenment. Having spent some years trying to be all nice and polite and empathic when engaging with promoters of pseudoscience and opponents of vaccines, only to be repeatedly sneered at and insulted while my arguments — whether facts or anecdotes — were ignored, I can’t begin to describe how liberating it was to find all these blogs by people who weren’t afraid to call a spade a spade or quacks stupid.
As for skeptic meetings, I don’t recognise the “very aggressive environment”, Frank spoke of. One of the many ironies about his presentation is that, having attended many different skeptics meetings, I’ve only ever felt uncomfortable twice and both times were during his talk.
He made much of how important it is to think about how you would explain an issue to your mother. I agree. My son is six foot plus and nearly fourteen stone but I’d still give him a slap if I heard him use such a graphically macho expression as, “I don’t want to shoot my load too early”. Is this how Frank talks to his mother?
Worse was to come (no pun intended):
It’s only by understanding mothers and understanding that they are swayed by stories not facts…
Oh dear! It’s been a while since I felt as patronised as I did at that moment. Mercifully, most skeptics don’t say things like that or I wouldn’t touch them with my husband’s lightsaber.
Much of what Frank said came across as either bizarre or gratuitously insulting. Take, for example, his view that that arguing from the basis of facts is ineffective and cowardly. Frank accuses skeptics of fetishising facts and of having “an obsession that you fight based on the factual accuracy of your idea”, which isn’t effective, he says, because people prefer stories and we have to “emotionalise” issues.
OK, I’ll concede there is some truth in that last point, which is why I write as I do. Just look at the colourful and interesting way I am telling the story of Frank’s talk, for example. And I make frequent use of stories of people suffering and dying at the hands of evil or stupid quacks in my blog posts. One of my favourite skeptic websites has an abundance of such stories. Funnily enough, the invariable response from my detractors is to dismiss them as anecdotes.
But what is “cowardly” about arguing from the basis of facts? Here’s Frank:
When you go in with a foregone conclusion and you know your numbers are right, you’re being particularly cowardly and very pedantic in my opinion and the worst thing about that is that you make no attempt to understand where that other person might be coming from.
I think what Frank is trying to say here is that the danger of being sure of one’s position is that we might fail to empathise with the other person and why they take the position they do. If that’s what he meant then it’s a fair point, which applies equally to those we argue against. It probably applies to most people arguing about most things they feel strongly about.
That Frank should make this point in such a hostile and aggressive way by calling it ‘cowardly’ struck me as another of the ironies about his talk. In any event, he is wrong. It is not cowardly to base an argument on facts and the reality is that people respond to both facts and stories, depending on where they’re at.
Here’s Frank on mothers again:
They hear these conflicting stories and above all else they want the best for their kid. They want to protect their child at all cost and it’s only by understanding this that you are then going to convince them that the MMR is the right way to go and you cannot do that with this arrogant attitude that you are right based on facts.
Rhetoric that sounds persuasive when spoken looks pretty empty on the printed page doesn’t it? How silly is the suggestion that skeptics don’t understand that mothers want to protect their children at all costs? And that one shouldn’t try to present them with the real facts because that’s “arrogant”? What are we supposed to do instead? Frank didn’t tell us.
It so happens that back in the mid-eighties when I was having my children, there was a big scare about the whooping cough vaccine. I was swayed by stories of the jab causing brain damage and I was equally swayed by stories of the miseries and dangers of whooping cough. The anti-vaxers caused me a great deal of anxiety and even less sleep than I was getting already with a young baby. So what did I do? I went looking for the bloody facts and I went on looking until I found them (not so easy in those pre-internet days). As a result of what I found out, both my children got all the jabs they were supposed to. I wish to goodness I’d known some of the facts that I know now before I’d been persuaded by people’s anecdotes to waste any time or money trying out quack therapies.
So I wasn’t persuaded by Frank’s argument about arguments. I felt his comments about blogging were a bit loopy as well. After pointing out — presumably for those of us too dim to realise it — that there’s a limit to what we can do on a blog and that a lot of people don’t come to the internet for information, Frank went on to say that the approach we choose to take and the tone in which we do so “narrows down our audience”. This is undeniably true. People who don’t want to read a skeptic perspective on anything will not read skeptic blogs. The danger, argues Frank, is that we only reach the people who think the same way as us; that we’re just an “echo chamber”.
It’s a curious suggestion that people only read stuff they think they are going to like and agree with and I invite anyone who thinks there’s any truth in it to look at the lower left hand column on this blog and peruse some of the comments that have been made about it — and me — by my readers.
In his introduction Frank had said,
The most powerful thing I can do as a writer is change someone’s mind, shape the way they see the world, change the way someone thinks…
I agree. What Frank failed to do in his talk is explain why he thinks skeptic bloggers aren’t doing this because I know from personal experience that they are and that skeptic bloggers can take a large part of the credit for the recent groundswell of support for skeptic causes from people who’d hitherto taken little or no interest.
My most fundamental disagreement with Frank is over his idea that anyone who promotes a sceptical approach to pseudoscience is a member of the ‘skeptic community’ and answerable for the crimes of any other member of said community. He referred to the recent twitter storm over Gillian McKeith during which somebody apparently called her a “stupid fucking cunt”.
What does it show about a community when we allow somebody to say something like that and they feel comfortable in an environment saying someone is a stupid fucking cunt?
I don’t buy into the notion that we are a ‘community’ in any meaningful sense of the word. As far as I’m concerned, the only thing I have in common with most other skeptics is an opposition to the dishonest promotion and public funding of altmed. Being a skeptic is a small part of who I am. Amongst other things, I am also a feminist. I write from a feminist perspective but I’m not in any ‘feminist community’. In common with other secularists, I am opposed to religious privilege but nobody talks about a ‘secularist community’ and I don’t mind standing shoulder to shoulder with feminists and secularists who use quack remedies when we’re campaigning for abortion or against faith schools.
When I see the nasty things that other secularists sometimes say about those with any kind of religious faith, I can get quite offended on behalf of the highly intelligent, thinking and liberal but religious members of my extended family. But I am not responsible for how other secularists behave — they have nothing to do with me and I don’t see why I should feel any different about other skeptics. I don’t defend the way a bunch of people I don’t know behaved over Gillian McKeith on Twitter but I can understand the anger behind it. It wasn’t because McKeith is an enemy of scepticism, as Frank suggested, but because of what she did and what she had done before she did that. And if “all” that’s happened as a consequence is that she has stopped promoting herself on Twitter, as Frank lamented, then that sounds like a result to me.
Frank did make the point that skeptics aren’t formally organised and therefore lack the infrastructure of the environmentalists. Nevertheless he constantly referred to skeptics as if we were bound together by something more than a shared interest in promoting an evidence-based approach and critical thinking.
We are a community; we know the same people, we have the same experiences, we read the same things…we have our own particular gods and monsters and we elevate these people who are our gods up to this level where no-one is allowed to criticise… anything that someone like Ben Goldacre or Simon Singh or Evan Harris says is beyond question. There’s this prevailing attitude that you don’t speak out against these top people.
Hogwash. Yes, there are a number of guru-like figures for skeptics but only because they have achieved a high profile by saying and doing things we agree with and because they have been the targets of bullying and abuse from people who stand for what we disagree with. But where does this idea that any individual skeptic wouldn’t speak out if he or she disagreed with anything any of these prominent figures said or did? Because I certainly would. I am an admirer and frequent defender of Richard Dawkins, for example. Dawkins is said to be a guru for hard core atheists like me. Yet the only blog I’ve written about him was to argue that he was wrong and I’ll do the same favour for Ben or Simon or anyone else in a heartbeat should they give me cause to.
I think that’s very dangerous, it’s not a situation I think we should be in…We like to think of ourselves as critical, sceptical people,
So says Frank. Well that’s OK because that situation doesn’t exist outside of his imagination. The reason we think of ourselves as critical, sceptical people is because we are and I hope that nobody was so demoralised by Frank’s talk (which was notably short of constructive suggestions) that they’ll do anything differently.
Here are all the other blog responses that I’m aware of. I think most, if not all, are more sympathetic than mine.